Assault Rifles and Their Contentious Definition
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Assault Rifles and Their Contentious Definition
Brady Kirkpatrick Last Updated 21st September,2020

There are many polarities in guns, from gun control debates to who makes the best firearms. However, the assault rifle as it has been affectionately termed is perhaps one of the firearms that’s argued over the most.

It’s name alone strikes fear, so for those not familiar with assault rifles, what they are, how they can be used, and why they’re important, it’s high time for an education. We’ll talk about where they came from, the different types, and whether or not they’re legal.

Assault Rifle Definition

The term “assault rifle” is scary and polarizing. Without a proper understanding of what it is, people tend to shy away from their acceptance, and they jump on the gun control bandwagon pretty quickly because, let’s face it, it sounds pretty bad, right?

According to most proponents of guns, an assault rifle has to meet a number of criteria to be considered:

  • It must be rapid-fire
  • It must be magazine fed
  • It allows the shooter to switch between semi-automatic, fully automatic, or three-shot burst mode

This also follows the Merriam Webster assault rifle definition. However, the dictionary also includes a secondary definition to include rifles that resemble military assault rifles, but are only designed for semi-automatic fire. Most people knowledgeable about firearms would not include this second definition at all.

A semi-automatic rifle requires a separate trigger pull for each show. A full automatic rifle allows the shooter to hold the trigger for continuous fire. Assault rifles are shoulder-held rifles designed for military use and have been restricted from civilian ownership since 1934.

So where did the term assault rifle come from anyway?

The term came shortly after the first assault rifle was developed to meet the needs of the modern soldier. Violence on the battlefield had increased at such an alarming rate that the existing weapons did very little to protect them.

Rumor has it that the exact term “assault rifle” was given by Adolf Hitler. He insisted that instead of calling it Machinenpistole (German for submachine gun), it should be called Sturmgewehr, which is German for assault rifle.

It made for more interesting propaganda copy because it was more abrupt, scarier, and unique. None of the rest of the world had any yet, so it was something else that set his empire apart.

It caught on so quickly that the first mass-produced assault rifle was called the Sturmgewehr 44, or the StG 44.

Sturmgewehr 44 stg 44
Photo of Sturmgewehr 44. Photo Credit – Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1979-118-55 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

While this may or may not be entirely accurate, it’s the only story that history seems to offer, and is likely more true than anything else.

Types of Assault Rifles

There are over 100 different types of assault rifles that exist today, but there are a few big names you may recognize because they’re the most widely used. Here’s a quick rundown of a few different types of assault rifles.

Perhaps the most well-known of the assault rifles is the AK-47. It was built in the Soviet Union in 1947 by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov. It was aptly named the Automatic Kalashnikov 1947, or the AK-47.


AK 47 assault rifle definition
AK 47 – Photo Credit No machine-readable author provided. Matze187 assumed (based on copyright claims). / CC BY-SA

Two years later the Soviet military officially adopted it into use. It was easy to operate and soldiers could rely on it under even the most stressful conditions. It’s rugged durability meant that it would withstand even the most trying moments on the battlefield.

It had a firing rate of 600 rounds per minute, and in keeping with our definition of an assault rifle, was capable of the switch from semi-automatic to automatic fire. There were two versions produced: one with a wood stock and another with a folding metal stock.

By the 1970s, it was replaced by the AK-74 (I bet you can’t guess where the name comes from this time) due to repeated problems with accuracy and recoil.


FN SCAR – Photo Credit KASP / CC BY-SA

You may be interested to know that the U.S. military frequently holds competitions for assault rifle manufacturers. They compete in these trials and it promotes the best weapon-making practices while allowing the military to choose the best protection for their forces.

The FN SCAR is a result of one such competition, made by FN Herstal out of Belgium. It won out against the others and was put into practice in 2009 by the U.S. Special Operations Command. It used the same 5.56×45 NATO as the M4 and the M16 (manufactured by Colt), but it was lighter and more versatile.

It offers performance, ease of use, and flexibility with a modular rapid-change barrel and a heavier version chambered in 7.62×51 NATO. All of these work together to ensure mission success and reliability in the field.

While it replaced the M4, it didn’t do much to completely change the face of military operations. However, it plays an important role all over the world. It’s used in over 20 countries today by both the military and police forces.


HK416 – Photo Credit Dybdal. / CC BY-SA

One of the most popular modern assault rifles in use today is the HK416. It was first made in 2004 and its benefits include weak recoil, excellent ergonomics, and ease of use in high pressure situations.

It’s made by Heckler & Koch and its design was largely based on that of the AR-15. It’s the assault rifle considered standard issue for the Norwegian Armed Forces. The French Armed Forces also adopted it to replace the standard issue FAMAS.

The HK416 is what SEAL Team Six used to kill Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

Military Grade Weapons Definition

Something important to note is that the term “military grade” isn’t exactly the same as “assault rifle.” Many activists will use the phrase “military grade weapons” to describe a very long list of firearms.

The term, when applied so widely, loses all meaning. Not to mention that the term itself is very poorly defined, if it’s even been defined at all. The truth is that most of the firearms in civilian possession today were once used by the military and, at one time or another, were considered military grade.

For instance, the Smith and Wesson Airweight J-frame was issued to pilots in the Vietnam War. The Winchester Model 70 was given to Marine Corps snipers during the same conflict. And the Mossberg 500 was used by the Army in World War I.

The term military grade covers all manner of sins, which is the whole point behind using it, for those who want to condemn the use of firearms altogether.

Semi-automatic Assault Rifles

While some (including Merriam Webster) will include semi-automatic rifles in the assault rifle definition, many do not. There are way too many semi-automatic rifles in circulation to count. In any case, here are some of the most popular semi-automatic rifles that resemble assault rifles.


STNGR AR-15 on wood tree stump

Many people think of the AR-15 as an assault rifle, when in fact, it’s not. It doesn’t meet all of our criteria because it lacks the select fire capability. An AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle only, and cannot be switched to continuous fire.

The AR-15 was first developed by ArmaLite in the late 1950s and was designed as a military rifle. It didn’t immediately spike in popularity, and in 1959, ArmaLite sold the design to Colt.

Despite some controversy, the letters “AR” stand for ArmaLite Rifle, not “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.”

The AR-15 was never officially adopted by the military, and during the Vietnam War, they chose instead to use the M16.


sks-45 sks 45

Much like the AR-15, the SKS-45 is also not an assault rifle for the same reasons, despite the common misconceptions. Many people confuse the two, but people who own AR-15s and SKSs are within their legal right to own and operate these firearms, whereas true assault rifles are not civilian-approved.

The SKS-45 (more commonly referred to as the SKS) was first manufactured by the Soviet Union in 1945. It was used by the military until 1958, when it was replaced by the AK-47.

The SKS design was also sold widely to any manufacturer who wanted to make it, and was a huge financial contributor to the arms race.

Smith & Wesson M&P 15

This is a relatively new, but popular semi-automatic rifle introduced in 2016. It’s chambered in both 5.56 NATO and .223. It accepts M16-style magazines and is well-liked, not only because it comes from a well-known manufacturer, but because it’s very similar to the AR-15. Also, I’d recommend looking into how to properly store your AR-15.

Parts of a Rifle

Whether it’s an automatic or semi-automatic, most rifles have some common parts. As with any type of firearm, rifles have a trigger, a barrel, a receiver, and some sort of grip. However, what sets a rifle apart from, say, a handgun, is the length.

Rifles can be set apart from shotguns by their rifled barrels, while they can be differentiated from a handgun by the buttstock that sits against the shooter’s shoulder. However, there are still many different types of rifles.

More specifically, a bolt action rifle will include a bolt handle that is used to chamber the round manually. These firearms only shoot one cartridge at a time, whereas a semi-automatic rifle has a magazine with increased capacity and can fire a cartridge with each trigger pull without having to chamber each of them manually.

A semi-automatic rifle and an automatic rifle have similar parts, with the exception of the switch that allows you to adjust the mode from semi-automatic to automatic.

Final Thoughts

Assault rifles are very controversial, thanks to the confusion surrounding their definition. The truth is that a real assault rifle is used by the military only and they are not available for civilian use.

While the topic of gun control will likely always be a hot one, the argument of who should have access to what should not currently include assault rifles.

Other rifles, like semi-automatic or bolt action rifles, are available for hunting, competition shooting, collecting, and much more.